It All Means Everything
The Super Blood Moon
South across the river, it was rising over the silhouettes of trees to fill the sky. It was close, seemed to be getting closer, and the creamy yellowness of our moon had transformed into a glowing red. The colour was not furious so much as alien, as if Mars had come from afar to orbit Earth. We had not known it was coming, but there it was, like clockwork.
Emma and I had rented a small cabin for the month near the town Las Fronteras on the Rio Dulce. The one-room abode was on stilts above mangroves with a long, covered wooden walkway leading back to the land and a bathroom we shared with a guy living in a houseboat tied up across the dock. Our room had a single outlet running a mini-fridge, a light bulb, and a one-burner gas cooker.
On the porch, there was a hammock, and from it, we could see the massive bridge that connects the piece of Guatemala below Lago Izabal to the one above it. For the cars, buses, and big rigs, it was pass here or drive nearly six hours back towards Guatemala City to find a road north. The Jake Brakes of tractor-trailers screamed as they moved over it, where Guatemala’s largest lake tapered into the river leading to the Caribbean coast.
Las Fronteras, usually just called Rio Dulce, was hardly more than a few waterfront eateries, a handful of hostels, some local market stalls, and a few spots for boats to dock. People who got here by land and stayed were usually passing through on their way elsewhere but with enough time to stop and check it out. Backpackers. There was also a culture of boat folks who used it as safe place to dock during bad weather seasons.
Otherwise, the banks of the Rio Dulce and its tributaries are surrounded by huge swaths of coastal rainforest and mangroves. Tucked in the coves, hidden under the trees, were Mayan villages. These were populated with people who speak indigenous languages, with a smattering a Spanish and the odd, enthusiastic “Hello!” or “How are you?” from someone who got English lessons via an NGO.
The indigenous worked for Chiquita Brands International (formerly the United Fruit Company) in banana plantations. Or, they tended up-and-coming palm oil plantations and rubber tree plantations, or cleaned up around pipelines, nothing more than machetes at the ready. Some landed jobs at the hotels around town. In general, they live in thatched huts with no electricity or plumbed water, far from the refinements of Las Fronteras.
For us, getting back to town required a half-hour walk down a rather treacherous stretch of road where cars weren’t expecting pedestrians. If we didn’t do that, we could tramp along beat-up gravel track about 20 minutes through the attached cacao-and-tropical-hardwood plantation to a waterside guesthouse called Tortugal Boutique River Lodge.
Our friend Juan who’d rented us the place set up a connection so that we could make the walk to the lodge and have access to the internet in order for me to keep up with writing assignments. The staff treated me like a guest and gave me complimentary coffee. I’d even watched a couple of college football games in the evening there when LSU was playing.
For years, I’d heard of the next eclipse, such-and-such meteor shower, this once-in-every-hundred-fifty-six years comet. I knew before they were to happen and usually disregarded them. In my world, they were always other ones on the horizon. For this reason, the surprise encounter with a giant red moon was unalarming.
It was easier to simply bask in its magnificent glow than fret about what was happening. Certainly, someone already knew it was coming and had announced it. The next day over French fries we learned from a local paper that we’d seen a super blood moon.
A blood moon is a lunar eclipse. That happens when the Earth blocks the sun from shining on the moon, causing it to have ruddy colour because the sun rays that do hit it have passed through the Earth’s atmosphere. The total eclipse lasts for about 15 minutes.
A “supermoon” occurs when the moon’s orbit is at its closest point to Earth, or perigee, during the full moon phase. It appears larger and brighter than normal, hence “super”. The term has only been around since 1979, a year after Superman, the movie, was made.
A super blood moon is when it all lines up at once. We just happen to be looking across the river at that moment. It’s hard not to wonder what the indigenous villagers must have thought as they caught sight of the same celestial madness looming over us all. Had they known it was coming?
Their ancestors had been masters of the universe, capable a building massive pyramids completely in tune with lunar cycles and constellations. Did that knowledge make it down the line? Had it been lost inside the Banana Republic? Was it wiped out with the government in the CIA-backed revolution of the 1950s? Did the genocide of the 30-year Guatemala Civil War strike the final blow?
Just as the super blood moon was now gone, a fleeting moment, had theirs, too, disappeared?
At this point in history, it was hard to say who seemed more at home in the 21st century version of Las Fronteras, amongst the yachts docked on the Rio Dulce and the jungle giving way to monoculture farms for export. We were staring at the same sky, but was it the same?
The Total Solar Eclipse
The solar eclipse of August 2017 has made it into certain annals, such as timeanddate.com, as the “Great American Eclipse” with a list of notable reasons, nine-fold, for its significance. Emma and I ended up at a place where we would get a maximum point view of it. We had by happenstance found ourselves living in Brevard, North Carolina, in my mother’s basement, right along the path of totality.
The phrases “maximum point” and “path of totality” seemed grandiose, as if the stars had aligned so nicely for us. It was too irresistible not to become part of the masses huddled ‘round on a Monday afternoon to see it. The news was everywhere, and the local Ingles supermarket, Marathon gas station, and so on were selling paper glasses with solar filters, much like 1980’s 3-D movie glasses, so that it could be viewed safely.
Total solar eclipses only occur globally every 18 months or so, and it takes nearly 400 years for them to occur in the same location. We had bought beer, packed a picnic, and were making a day of it. The gated community my mother and stepfather had retired to had several mountain lakes, and we’d decided to take it all in from the crest of the dam wall.
Emma and I had been avid hikers in Connestee Falls. We were able to walk out of our basement door and be on trails in less than 15 minutes by foot, and we could be knee-deep in waterfalls within an hour. We went almost daily, often stopping at this lake on the way back to take a dip. About 90% of the time we were the only ones enjoying it, and we’d splay out on the little dock to dry off in the sunshine before heading home. We even had a shortcut from the lake to the street my mother lived on. It had all become very routine.
On this day, however, we were not alone in our vision of how to take in the eclipse. The lake was swimming with families we’d never seen, and the dam wall was blanketed in picnickers, all of us with our cardboard glasses in tow, coolers, and an overabundance of snacks. The word, in a word, was truly out. Whether love of nature was or was not part of one’s life, we all bought in. The sun was going to disappear. This occurrence of the cosmos was big news in Brevard.
It was big news around the country. This is the solar eclipse that we all would later, for years to come, see photos of President Donald Trump staring into, having removed his safety glasses like a discarded COVID mask. It was a spectacle worthy of national coverage, and there I lay with a beard full of crumbs, cutout safety glasses, a cold beer in hand, and a smile on my face as the world went dark. Odd, I thought, how we need glasses for when we stare at a sun that isn’t visible.
But, the truth is that, for whatever amount of consumerist pomp and circumstance given to the event, however out of character it might have been for certain onlookers to be outdoors at all, there was something wholly humbling about the day going dark and rousingly silent for a few minutes as things much larger than our imaginations performed a familiar dance that has been repeating for eons, further back than our thoughts can travel.
I have no idea if we deserved to be in such a location at such a moment. Any of us. Luckily, the cosmos doesn’t work that way. We simply get it. That is, until we don’t.
My relationship with stars, at least with any serious recollection, began with Orion. More specifically, it began with the three stars that make up his belt. This small section of constellation is the first of the stars I learned to identify, and frankly, any other from there has been based around Orion’s belt: his arrow aimed at Taurus, the Seven Sisters clustered somewhere near him.
I’ve hardly added to my knowledge of constellations and stars. Finding Orion has been my bread and butter with gazing up at the night sky. Though I have seen both the big and little dipper, which I believe most novice star-gazers spot readily, I don’t think I could go out and find them now. I’ve seen Mars and Venus, but other than dumb guesses based on colors (Venus, yellow; Mars, red; right?), I wouldn’t have any luck with those either.
I never bothered mastering those night sky elements as I did Orion. Funny thing is that I don’t remember the details of that event. I don’t know where I was or why I was looking up at the sky. I do know that my stepfather has been given credit for teaching me how to find Orion via those three stars in his belt forming a straight line. It was his enthusiasm for doing so that started me doing it. But, beyond that, I can’t recall how it happened.
Shortly after it did, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer. It was a dream brought on by a 3rd grade school project in which I had to write a report about what I wanted to be. Before then, I’d had no big dreams for a career, never cared to be a firefighter or cowboy or stockbroker. Truthfully, by the end of the school year, I’d let that dream go, too.
But, for my report, my mother arranged that I visit the planetarium in Baton Rouge and interview an astronomer there. He’d let me control the night sky on the underside of that dome for a few minutes. I’m not sure what else happened. I don’t even know if I got to point out my constellation to him. My mom took a picture of me at the controls that went in my report. I got an A.
Orion is visible from both the Southern and Northern Hemisphere, requires no special equipment to see, and is known for having one of the brightest stars. Its name, I’ve recently learned, is Rigel.
Rigel is a blue-white supergiant. It is roughly 860 light years away. It is neither the closest nor furthest star from Earth within the constellation. Orion also has stars called Betelgeuse and Bellatrix. They are both far closer to us than Rigel, less than half the distance. The middle star of Orion’s belt (Rigel is a foot) is 500 light years further out.
For those who, like me, don’t know what a light year is, not in a way that would pass as defining it, I’ve also learned via NASA’s website that a light year is the distance that light can travel in one Earth year. That’s about 9 trillion kilometers, or 6 trillion miles for those who, like me, didn’t enjoy neatly decimalized forms of measurement in their upbringing. Six trillion miles still sounds too long to understand anyway, let alone hundreds of times that distance.
It’s odd to think of the distance between the stars in the sky this way. Stars that appear to be near one another, close enough to string together into a crudely shaped bear or bull or hunter, are actually at varying distances from earth and, equally so, each other. In other words, there are stars elsewhere in the night sky that are far closer to Betelgeuse than the stars in its own constellation.
Furthermore, from a different perspective, say the surface of Saturn (my former favourite planet from the 3rd grade), these constellations are unidentifiable. The change in position makes the arrangement, as we know it, disperse. If I ever visited Saturn, would I even bother looking up again after the initial disappointment of not finding my old trusted friend still perched aloft with his belt fastened and bow drawn?
It turns out Saturn is a gas giant and doesn’t even have a surface anyway. It is made up almost entirely of hydrogen and helium and would float in a bathtub were there one large enough to hold it. But, it was my favourite, like everyone else, because it had those cool rings. I suppose like Orion’s Belt helped me sort out the stars, the rings made Saturn easy to identify when looking at models of the Solar System. I had no idea it has over 80 moons. Those are never in the models.
In that huge blanket of stars, no matter where I’ve been on Earth, I have always found Orion. Why that’s comforting is a mystery to me. Maybe at our most basic, what we really want is to recognize something.
Zion National Park
Our first stop on our post-Vegas honeymoon, a flash-pan car camping trip, was Zion National Park in the southwestern corner of Utah. It was mid-March and still wintery enough to have smatterings of snow on the ground to contrast with red rock canyons of Navajo sandstone. Emma ate her first Frito pie that night by the campfire, and we spent much of the evening staring up at the stars.
Emma and I met in Korea. We were ESL teachers at the same school, and there was instantly something between us. She’d suspected as much when she saw my photo in the teachers’ office before we ever met, and I suspected it when our director introduced us at the coffee shop just down the stairs from the school on her first morning.
I’d been in the country for 2 months when she arrived, and 2 weeks later, that was all she wrote. When our contracts ran out, we signed up for another year with a shared apartment. In our first 4 years together, we traveled to about two dozen countries, including my first trip to England to meet her family and her first to the States to meet mine. During that time, we lived and taught in Korea, Guatemala, Turkey, and the Palestinian West Bank.
After the Palestinian West Bank, on our way back to Guatemala, I asked her to marry me. In our early years, the thought of commitment had frightened Emma, as if the adventure of life, at that point, would cease. I’d suggested that we take on small chunks at a time with a serious assessment and review at four years, should we make it there.
To her undisguised dismay, when we reach that point while in the West Bank, I had proposed not marriage but that we take things like a rental lease and go month-to-month from here on out. After four years, we’d earned that sort of trust with one another. No need for deposit money.
But, unbeknownst to her (she’d have totally disapproved), I’d done the whole thing where I asked her father’s permission when he visited us in Istanbul a couple of months earlier. He was thrilled and loved that he would get to keep a secret. And, I’d recruited my mother’s help with arranging things for a wedding in Vegas, in the chances she might say yes.
Neither one of us were all that moved to marry anyone anytime, but in Turkey and Palestine, we’d lived under the guise of being married anyway. It fit us fine and seemed logistically easier as a traveling couple for hire. Maybe that wasn’t romantic, but it was enough to persuade us both to dive in.
Most friends and family had decided this fate long before we ever did, but they’d envisioned a secluded tropical beach somewhere (a country they were unfamiliar with), flip-flops, and flower crowns. In some sense, we’d been to these types of places together, but we had not gone the resort route those sorts of images were more akin to.
We took a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia between teaching contracts in Korea. After we landed in Siam Reap, Cambodia, I learned that my bank card wouldn’t work. A couple weeks later, her wallet was stolen on a beach along the coast in Sihanoukville. In Ko Chang, just over the border into Thailand, we were down to a couple hundred bucks with a month to go.
We figured out we could wire cash to ourselves with Western Union and headed to Bangkok to do it, arriving without any knowledge that international news had reported a bombing that killed a British and an American tourist that day. We’d emailed our families before leaving Ko Chang and hadn’t checked our inboxes for three days after arriving in the city. When we finally did, my father was in the throes of arranging a flight to Thailand, and Emma’s well-connected aunt was reaching out to friends in high places.
On the way from Thailand to Malaysia, we continued our haphazard tour of the region by leaving our safely hidden MP3 players in top of a closet in a hotel room in Phuket. We were hours into a shuttle bus journey to the Ko Phi Phi ferry by the time we realized and decided to cut our loses rather than turn back for them.
In Isla Mujeres, Mexico, we’d shared a room in a hostel with a guy who would periodically come in, rant at himself for a while, and leave us still rubbing our eyes as he slammed the door on his way out again. That week, my fair-skinned English Emma got burned so bad she was ill and had to spend an entire day in a (different) hotel room under a fan.
In Zipolite, on the other side of Mexico, Emma — a vegetarian since age seven — made a deal with the gods of nature that she would forego seeing her first dolphin if the guy fishing from the tour boat wouldn’t catch anything. She confessed this to me on our way back to the hotel, noting that it was worth it. We’d spent about $20 each for the boat ride that afternoon, and it had taken us nearly a week to track down Byron, whom the lonely planet deemed the best guide for spotting marine mammals in the area.
In El Zonte, El Salvador, we arrived to learn we’d needed to backtrack to San Salvador to exchange our Guatemalan quetzals for US dollars. We spent the first day of our short beach get-away on local buses, our first with actual live chickens on them, searching for a place to exchange the wad of cash we brought from our home in Guatemala City. A nice-looking bank had helped us arrange a taxi to what seemed to be the basement of a parking lot, the only place in the country that would exchange quetzals.
In the sanitized world of social media and photo sharing, it must have seemed, back at our respective “homes”, like an endless soiree into the various paradises of the world. And, it was, and it wasn’t. It’s amazing how these sordid memories are often the ones that bring about the biggest smiles for us. They were far more important than a wedding could ever be.
So, in a weird way, the ease of getting married in Las Vegas made sense. People asked us if, at least, Elvis had officiated, grasping for something to make it fit. But, we’d gone to the County Clerk’s office, gotten a license, and accepted the first wedding hawker outside the building. This part, I guess, was about logistics.
The stars that night in Zion were deep, layers upon layers disappearing into black horizons of space that haven’t been explored or explained yet. It was the fullest night sky we’d ever seen before or since. It was not a Tiki beach. We didn’t have a luxury suite or even a thatched hut. It was a tent in a campground and a park-issued picnic table to sit at. We had not realized how often such an inconspicuous moment would be recalled in the decade to come.
I couldn’t have planned it better.
Phases of the Moon
Almanac farming is largely based on the fact that the position of the moon creates slight, but notable, changes to gravity and light. The moon cycles around the planet every 29½ days, explained in four primary phases: new, waxing, full, and waning. A new moon is the first quarter of the cycle when the moon goes from its least illuminated and begins waxing until its full before it begins waning until it is once again new. The cycle repeats, has repeated, for as long as humanity first noticed the moon. Before then even.
The moon, though much smaller than Earth, does have its own gravitational pull. Through time, the gravity of our planet and the gravity of the moon have had influence in the shaping of the other. That’s part of the reason why neither is actually a perfect sphere.
The moon’s pull influences the length of Earthly days and the stability of the seasons by controlling the Earth’s tilt. On a daily basis, oceanic tides move from high to low based on where the Earth is nearest and furthest from the moon. It is even known for lifting the Earth’s crust a couple of inches.
Of course, the seasons and that larger cycle of the moon and Earth around the sun have a huge effect on gardens, but doesn’t stop there. The moon waxing from new to full is massively different from when it wanes from full to new. The increasing amount of light during the waxing period makes it best for sowing seeds for crops with leaves and above-ground fruits, thriving from the light, while the decreasing light of waning is better suited for root crops, spending their energy on subterranean sustenance. The waning moon is also the time to kill weeds, prune, mow, cut, and harvest.
My first (realized) experience of how the moon worked this way was in Panama. In 2013, Emma and I left Guatemala in November on a trip to Patagonia. We hoped to spend six months to a year getting there. Our plan was to farm-hop our way down, doing work trades to both learn about organic gardening and make our savings stretch. Three months later we were living in Panama, and while there, the thought of building a thatch roof first crossed our mind as something we could, actually would, do.
Local workers had just installed one, and we’d watched the process, even spoke to them about how to tie the palm fronds together. They’d explained to us that harvesting the fronds during the waning moon was incredibly important to the longevity of the roof. During this time, they said, the insects and moisture in the leaves would be less, and that equated to several extra years of life for the roof. When they left us their excess fronds, we built our own tiny roof with them and it worked.
While the well-timed frond harvest seemed folksy, which shouldn’t necessarily disqualify something from being useful or valid, it turns out that thatched roofs aren’t the only thing that follows this rule. Old-school timber harvesting worked the same way, and many luthiers follow this rule when they choose the material for instruments. It’s called “moon wood”. Studies have shown that trees pulse as the tide does, swelling and loosening as moonlight increases then shrinking and tightening as the moon wanes.
We never made it further south than Colombia, but we did travel for well over a year and vastly change our outlook on the planet, including the way we live. By the end of our trip, we were moon enthusiasts of a sort, diving into as many natural phenomena like this as we could find, particularly in regard to growing food. The lunar phases no longer seemed something of the past but an important part of the sustainable future we, and the folks we’d been meeting, were chasing.
The mysteries of the moon, the strength of the sun, the dowry of decomposition, the whims of weather — considering these neglected morsels of nature’s magic unlocked a vision of the world I’d never had. It’s no wonder that these celestial bodies have stood in as deities in so many world religions and dominated the myths in cultural histories. The planet doesn’t work without them. We don’t eat without them. We are in the environmental mess we are in because we have fought against them, just as our ancient ancestors had warned against.
Emma and I spent the next few years learning about such things and searching for a place to live our lives in harmony with nature and what we learned. We became more readily reliant on the sun and moon and seasons, needing them for the food we grew, the electricity we used, the rest we get, and the warmth of the home we built. We used to travel for months without ever looking at the weather, and now we plan our days by it. Today I’m writing this because the rain has chased me inside.
With this change, those vestigial celebrations of our childhood — the Christmases, Easters, Halloweens, and so on — have been replaced with pagan holidays wrapped around the solstices and equinoxes. It’s not out of responsibility to any unseen man in the sky but a way of keeping in step with tangible celestial bodies that, without a Word, dictate how we live. Our church is a campfire in which we periodically reflect on this and show gratitude for the space in time and the time in this space we’ve been given.
The sun, the moon, the stars — they owe us nothing.
Jonathon Engels is a Contributor for Panorama